A thwarted novelist’s tale
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A thwarted novelist’s tale
This weekend, hundreds of unpublished writers will attend the Brautigan Unconference, Creative Diddy-wah, and (inter)National Unpublished Writers Day at the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington. Richard Brautigan, who was born seventy-eight years ago this month in nearby Tacoma, imagined a home for the unpublished, “unwanted . . . and haunted volumes of American writing” in his 1971 novel, The Abortion. The author committed suicide in 1984, before he could see the idea brought to life in 2010 by a Brautigan fanatic and local professor named John Barber, who is also the library’s director. When I visited Vancouver for my December Harper’s article, “Man Underwater: The Democratic Fiction of Richard Brautigan,” Barber showed me around:
The library is situated in a corner of the museum and looks like a living room, with two stuffed chairs and an end table facing a set of bookshelves. A whitewashed sign announces that this is the brautigan library: a very public library, though there’s no one around except a tall man standing behind one of the chairs, who turns out to be a life-size cardboard cutout of the late author Richard Brautigan. Patrons from across the United States have paid twenty-five dollars apiece to house their unpublished novels here, books with titles like “Autobiography of a Nobody” and “Sterling Silver Cockroaches.” The shelves hold 291 of these cheap vinyl-bound volumes, which are organized into categories according to a schema called the Mayonnaise System: Adventure, Natural World, Street Life, Family, Future, Humor, Love, War and Peace, Meaning of Life, Poetry, Spirituality, Social/Political/Cultural, and All the Rest. Bylines and titles don’t appear on the covers. “The only way to browse the stacks is to choose a category and pick at random,” Barber explains. “Are you in the mood for Adventure or the Meaning of Life?”
After a long weekend spent reading manuscripts, I found one book that stood out from the rest: Did She Leave Me Any Money?, by Alyce Cornyn-Selby, which appeared to have been published. When I picked up the little book, I found inside that, indeed, it had been put out in 1991 by something called “Beynch Press.” A handwritten note below the colophon explained that the novel was being turned into a film by Warner Bros. Barber told me it was the only one at the library to have received such attention: an agent or an editor had liked the manuscript so much he decided it had to be shared with the world. “It’s a pretty good read, too,” Barber said. A blurb from The Atlantic agreed: the “plot is unique, the writing style enticing.”
I cracked open the novel. It began:
“They’re going to take a ginzu to my gizzard tomorrow and I don’t care,” sighs Timothy, throwing his head back on the white hospital pillow. “At least I’m not in an office and I’m not anywhere near Travis Duncan.”
A pleasant Puerto Rican nurse smiles as she pours a dose of Maalox into a paper cup. “Dreenk cup!” she sings. Timothy smiles a broad smile under his salt and pepper moustache and holds the cup champagne-style. “And here’s looking at you, kid!” he says with great relish, downing the lemon-flavored goo with a great “Ah!”
The nurse fluffs his pillows and regards his happy face. “I haf never seen someone so hoppy to be ein the ’ospital,” she remarks. “Especially for ul-sirs.”
Okay, I thought — it’s not great. In fact, it’s pretty terrible. But here, at least, was a novel that could sell some trade paperback copies; here was some of the storytelling, suspense, and basic command of the English language that I had found many of the library’s other books lacked.
The next day, I went to visit Alyce in Portland, at the National Historic Hat Museum, a purple Victorian house just across the Columbia River where she works as a milliner. “Do you like hats?” she asked. “Because, dear, I’m very sick of hats.”
The living room was crammed with towers of them. As was the dining room, many of them in the colors of the Union Jack — they’d just had an exhibit on Queen Elizabeth’s hats — and an anteroom behind it. “This folder is buried under about seven hats,” Alyce told me before retrieving a manila folder of her writing and leading me to a small kitchen. She sat me at a table, itself the home of a tower of hats as well as some books (I Want My Hat Back; Miss Fannie’s Hat; A Writer’s Guide to Poison).
“I believe the best novels are in the minds of people who don’t have the time to write them,” Alyce told me, explaining that she had first begun to write Did She Leave Me Any Money? while she was the visual-communications manager for a city agency in Portland. “Faulkner? Hemingway? Their novels aren’t nearly as good as those that could be written if only people had the time to write them.”
Alyce wrote her novel in longhand, during meetings. She didn’t finish it, but it provided the spark for her authorial ambitions: she soon began to write other books, publishing a slew of self-help titles like What’s Your Sabotage? and Why Winners Win. She became so successful that she left her job and launched a career as a full-time motivational speaker. With her earnings, she bought a purple roadster race car and took a vacation. She wrote a book about that, too, called Hit the Road: Across America in a Topless Car.
But eventually, she returned to the novel. Wealth provided her the time to write. She locked herself alone in her house — didn’t return phone calls, ate only hard-boiled eggs — and stayed there until she finished what became Did She Leave Me Any Money? “You have to write a novel when the idea for it stalks you like a big, hairy beast at the dinner table,” she told me as we sat in the kitchen of the Hat Museum (where Alyce says she works just for fun). “You push it away, you push it away, but this big, slobbering, hairy thing just won’t go away. It keeps coming back. It’s got its tongue out. It’s drooling on you. And eventually you give in.” At this, she stood up and paced the room, gesticulating. She likened her self-help books to lettuce (“perishable products”) and explained that, with Did She Leave Me Any Money?, she wanted to create something that would last forever. “Sometimes it’s easier to make a dream come true,” Alyce told me, displaying a motivational speaker’s talent for corny aphorism, “than to kill that dream.”
So in 1990, after she finished the novel, she shared the manuscript with a man she had worked for as a motivational speaker, the CEO of Caterpillar. The CEO, a voracious reader, called a few days later and told her he “loved it.” He said he thought it would make a great movie and asked if he could share the manuscript with a friend, an attorney and movie producer named Ira Englander. Three days later, Englander made her an offer to turn Did She Leave Me Any Money into a script. “That’s when the bidding war began for my work,” Alyce said. Eventually Warner Brothers bought the rights to the film, and soon a film crew came to her neighborhood in Portland, where the novel takes place, and scouted out the Victorian home where it’s set. A check later arrived for more than $50,000, and Alyce was shocked. “It was kind of nuts for me.”
When her attorney told her New York publishers would now engage in a bidding war over her novel, she sent her manuscript to six big publishing houses. When, after several months, all of them rejected it, she thought, “What, are these people crazy! It’s going to be made into a movie!” She says she didn’t know then that when film companies option scripts, only about one in seven are actually made into movies.
As Alyce told this story, she started to bang the glass table in anger, sending a tower of hats crashing down. She didn’t notice them, and kept talking. “As it is, those New York publishing types, thanks to the fact that they head their heads up their asses, they screwed me!” She explained that, in the end, no one bought her novel. The blurb from The Atlantic that appears on her book in the Brautigan Library is from a rejection letter they sent her. Benych Press, it turns out, is a vanity press that she owns. “I don’t have one good thing to say about New York publishers,” Alyce added, frowning.
The sentiment was typical for Brautigan Library writers, and one the late author shared. At the end of his life, Brautigan — despite tremendous commercial success early in his career for works like Trout Fishing in America — couldn’t get his own work published, and he blamed the “eastern critical mafia” for brutal reviews and for ruining his reputation. Brautigan’s work isn’t widely read today — Thomas McGuane’s criticism in 1973 that Brautigan was an anachronism, “nothing but a pet rock! A fucking hula hoop!” has, perhaps, proved prophetic. Yet Brautigan has nonetheless become a patron saint for failed writers, a novelist and poet in whose work — and the peculiar library named after him — thwarted authors find refuge.
Or, at least, some of them do. “I’m a successful author,” Alyce told me when I called her recently to ask if she planned on attending the Brautigan Unconference, Creative Diddy-wah, and (inter)National Unpublished Writers Day. She explained that while she felt a great kinship with the library’s frustrated contributors, she wouldn’t be attending. “That conference,” she said, “is for failures.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”